Somebody Dial 911
Viking coach Jerry Burns's announcement last week that he will retire at season's end may turn out to be the beginning of the biggest coaching turnover in NFL history. Get ready for zillions of rumors about who's going to get fired and who's going to get hired, many of which will have two former NFC East coaches, Bill Parcells (Giants) and Buddy Ryan (Eagles), as leading candidates to return to the sideline in 1992.
"Nothing has changed," says Parcells, meaning he will finish this season as an NBC analyst before deciding if and where he'll coach again. Look for him to be on some team's sideline next year—most likely the Bucs' or the Packers'.
"There are a lot of bad coaches out there, but I'm not going to take a job just because it's offered to me," says Ryan, who has spent the year on his farm near Lawrenceburg, Ky., since Philly fired him. "If someone offers me a job where I think I can win, I'll consider it."
Neither one is likely to end up as Burns's replacement in Minnesota, where the process of selecting a coach promises to be an interesting story in itself. At this time last season, Roger Headrick's only connection to pro sports was as Viking general manager Mike Lynn's neighbor in the posh Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata. Now, after his strange appointment as Viking president in January, Headrick, a former Pillsbury executive, wants this search for a new coach to be his first significant act. "It will be a way in which I will put my mark on the organization," he says. High on Headrick's list is Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross, with whom he met on Sunday while the Vikings were in Tampa to play the Bucs.
Burns's retirement was expected, but as many as eight other coaches are candidates to be replaced. Here's a rundown on the men in trouble and the gossip about their possible successors:
•Code Blue: Richard Williamson, Bucs (2-12); Dan Henning, Chargers (3-11).
Williamson will go down in Tampa Bay history as Richard the Meek. Last week the players decided they didn't want to watch films of their 33-14 loss to the Dolphins the previous Sunday. O.K., said Williamson. It's hard to believe Parcells would have done the same thing.
Henning has an impeccable reputation as an assistant coach, but he hasn't had a winning season in seven years as an NFL head man. The Chargers probably will hire a charismatic coach—perhaps Ross or Stanford's Dennis Green—to team with general manager Bobby Beathard.
•Critical Condition: Rick Venturi, Colts (1-13); John Robinson, Rams (3-11).
Venturi hasn't shown he can win since taking over for Ron Meyer, who was fired five games into the season. Not that anyone else could rally Indianapolis this season, but the Colts have to look in a new direction—perhaps to the West, where Raider quarterback coach Mike White is located. The Indy position fits him. Colt signal-caller Jeff George needs a guru, and he needs one now—before he gets ground into hamburger.
Robinson is interested in the Arizona State job. In fact, he has already asked one of his players if he would join him as a coach in Tempe, if he were to get canned and the Wildcats were to hire him. In any case, Ram vice-president John Shaw is asking NFL pals their opinion of Ryan.
•Intensive Care: Chuck Noll, Steelers (5-9); Lindy Infante, Packers (3-11).
Noll has acknowledged he might step down after 23 seasons as Pittsburgh's coach. At the same time, Steeler management might feel it has to make a change just for change's sake, perhaps to defensive line coach Joe Greene. The organization is under attack from all sides. Even Myron Cope, a Steelerholic radio color man, says Pittsburgh "has little more than the hope of occasionally winning close over a fellow stiff."
Taking a cue from Infante, Green Bay plays like a bunch of nice guys, and new general manager Ron Wolf will likely try to toughen up the Packers. The question is whether Wolf will give Infante one more year to do it himself.
•Guarded Condition: Chuck Knox, Seahawks (6-8); Sam Wyche, Bengals (2-11).
Seattle owner Ken Behring would be out of his mind if he let Knox go. Only Browns rookie coach Bill Belichick has gotten more out of less this season. University of Miami coach Dennis Erickson, a Washington native and a former coach at Washington State, would be a front-runner if Knox goes.
As for Wyche, he may have worn out his welcome with Cincinnati's front office (SI, Dec. 9). "I have no question in my mind that these players will play for me," he says, "but I think they'd play for other coaches, too." Redskins assistant head coach Richie Petitbon, perhaps?
Don't Get This Guy Mad
At 10-4, the Lions have their best record since 1970 and are tied with the Bears for the lead in the NFC Central, but they suffered a key loss in their 34-20 victory over the Jets. On a running play in the first quarter, nosetackle Jerry Ball—who was enjoying a Pro Bowl season—was chopped below the waist by New York running back Brad Baxter while being blocked high by Jet center Jim Sweeney. Ball suffered a sprained right knee and will miss the rest of the season.
It is legal on running plays to double-team defensive players high and low; on passing plays high-low blocks are not allowed. Thinking he had been illegally blocked, Ball was furious from the moment he fell to the ground. After the game, on crutches and in street clothes, he waited in the tunnel leading to both teams' locker rooms and cursed Baxter and Jet coach Bruce Coslet. When Baxter tried to explain to Ball that the high-low hadn't been intentional, Ball would have none of it. "You know the rule!" Ball hollered. Apparently, Ball doesn't.
He was still seething two hours later. "If we ever play them again," said Ball, "I'll hunt Coslet down in his dreams."
In his 14th game as coach of the Giants, Ray Handley heard his first "Ray must go!" chant at Giants Stadium. The postmortem on the 7-7 Giants, who in losing 19-14 to the Eagles will not be defending their Super Bowl title in the postseason: "At times we're unbeatable; at times we're the worst team in the NFL," said New York linebacker Steve DeOssie after Sunday's game. "But no one here can blame one person. Three people wouldn't have enough fingers to point."...
With the Steelers trailing by 25 points late in the fourth quarter against the Oilers, quarterback Bubby Brister refused to enter the game in relief of Neil O'Donnell, who had replaced Brister as the starter in October. "I'm no relief quarterback," said Brister. "I don't mop up for anybody."...
The mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, recently met with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to discuss plans to build a combined domed stadium and convention center in downtown Boston. "They need a stadium in the city," says Tagliabue. "Boston people are used to Boston Garden and Fenway Park."...
Bronco quarterback John Elway probably will need off-season surgery to remove a bone spur from his right shoulder. He would like to avoid surgery if possible and has decided to get a second opinion. The last time Elway underwent surgery on his passing arm, in 1988, Denver coach Dan Reeves insisted on being in the operating room with him while a bursa sac was removed from his elbow.
Game of the Week
Dallas at Philadelphia, Sunday. What an eerie coincidence for the Cowboys. Last year Dallas needed one win in its final two games (against either the Eagles or the Falcons) to make the playoffs. But quarterback Troy Aikman was injured early in the game against Philly, and the Cowboys lost both times. This year, with Aikman hobbled by a sprained right knee, the Cowboys again end the regular season with Philadelphia and Atlanta, and they need one win—maybe two—to get into the postseason. Aikman has missed the last two games and isn't expected to start against the Eagles. "It's dèjà vu, baby," says Dallas tackle Nate Newton. "The only thing that'll change is this time we're going to make the playoffs."
Stats of the Week
•If Jim Harbaugh starts the Bears' final two games, he'll be the first Chicago quarterback to start every game of a season since Vince Evans did so in 1981.
•Jet franchise receiver Al Toon has caught 75 passes in a row without scoring.
•The Rams and Falcons drew 35,315 to Anaheim Stadium, the lowest nonstrike crowd in the 13 years that L.A. has been playing at the Big A.
The End Zone
What hath modern sport wrought? The Lions could become the first team to win the Super Bowl having played all its postseason games indoors. Should Detroit receive a first-round bye in the playoffs by winning the NFC Central, it would play host to a divisional playoff at the Pontiac Silverdome. If the Lions prevail in that game and the Redskins are upset in their divisional playoff, the Silverdome will be the site of the NFC Championship Game. The Super Bowl will be held two weeks later at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
The Lions can dream, can't they?
How to Cover Jerry Rice
The query was innocent enough, something about the fear of having to cover the premier wide receiver in pro football, Jerry Rice of the 49ers. But the man taking on that assignment, Seahawk cornerback Patrick Hunter, scoffed at the question. "Don't even ask," he said last Saturday, the day before tracking Rice in San Francisco's 24-22 victory in Seattle. "I don't play this game scared. I go into a game against Jerry Rice the same way I go into a game against any receiver."
In their first practice in preparation for the Niners, some Seahawks had teased Hunter about covering Rice. "You'll be looking at the bottom of Jerry's shoes on Sunday," said one teammate. Such ribbing goes with the territory when you are going to be matched against Rice. Hunter knew what he had to do. "I have to perform well against Jerry for us to have a chance to win," he said.
While watching film of Rice last week, looking for clues to how to stop him, Hunter saw Rice's great cutting ability; the timing he shared with the 49ers' quarterbacks, even the inexperienced Steve Bono; and the burst of speed he showed on crossing patterns. This was to be Hunter's first test against Rice. By Saturday, he had learned the most important thing about Rice. "He works harder than any receiver I've ever seen," Hunter said. "He never takes a play off."
Throughout the game, Hunter recalled later, he was thinking, Consistency. Don't let him make anything big.
Bono wound up throwing 44 passes against Seattle, and Hunter covered Rice, in both zone and man schemes, 19 times. Rice made only one of his six receptions against Hunter, a 16-yard pass into Hunter's zone on a turnaround timing route in the first half. Soon after, in single coverage, Rice and Hunter went up for a pass, and Hunter knocked the ball away.
"They came at me, and I competed hard," said Hunter after the game. "I think between me and him, it was a toss-up." But Rice scored on a nine-yard catch in the third quarter on the opposite side of the field from Hunter, where he made other clutch receptions, and the Niners won. That's often the case when you play Rice's team.
A BIG HIT WITH THE PATS
Until recently, Vincent Brown was the "other guy" from Mississippi Valley State, and that was fine with him. If it had taken the presence of Jerry Rice at the tiny school in Itta Bena, Miss., for NFL scouts to get their first peek at Brown, that was fine, too. "Scouts would come down to see Jerry," says Brown, the Patriots' budding star at inside linebacker, "and they'd see me and say, 'Hey, who's that guy over on defense?' It was a blessing in disguise for me."
It's a nice story, but Dick Steinberg, the fellow who plucked Brown in the second round of the 1988 draft for New England, has a different recollection. "Believe me, Vincent Brown didn't need Jerry Rice to put him on the map," says Steinberg, now the Jets' general manager. "He was that good. When you saw him, thoughts of [All-Pro Dolphin linebacker] John Offerdahl came into your head. He was definitely going to be found down there."
Now when teams play the Pats, they have to keep an eye on Brown or he can ruin their day. Installed full-time at inside linebacker this season for the first time in his four-year career—established veterans kept him out of the lineup at first, and injuries prompted an ill-suited move to the outside in 1990—Brown has a team-high 109 tackles. At 6'2" and 245 pounds, he has the prototypical body for an inside linebacker. He's strong enough to stuff the run, as a premier inside linebacker must do, and he's quick enough to pursue.
Against Miami on Nov. 10, with the Dolphins facing third-and-one at the New England 32 and with six minutes to play in a 20-20 game, Brown came up to stuff Sammie Smith over the left guard for a one-yard loss. Miami missed a field goal on the next play.
The previous week against the Bills, Brown had a team-season-high 19 first hits—defensive coordinator Joe Collier considers the man who delivers the initial hit the most important tackier on the play—and made three solo stops when Buffalo was inside the Pats' 10. On one of them, he tripped up Jim Kelly at the New England four-yard line. The Bills wound up kicking a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown.
The big hit—that's what Brown's becoming known for. Just ask Pats nosetackle Tim Goad. "Sometimes, I'll be on the ground with a couple of guys on top of me, and Vincent will hit somebody and I'll know it," Goad says. "It sounds like thunder overhead."
"For me," says Brown, "the exhilarating part is not just the hit. It's making plays that give my team a chance to win. In my position, that has to be the important thing."
Important, too, is the recognition he has yearned for ever since he went unrecruited by a major college while at Walter F. George High in Decatur, Ga. "In college I was always kind of envious of Jerry," says Brown. "I wanted to be as successful as he was. I wished I could get to his level."
You're getting close, Vincent.